The toppling of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky's statue in Moscow in 1991 sent a powerful signal that the end of Communist rule was nigh. It's less certain what the destruction of Vladimir Lenin's statue in Kiev last night means for the future of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
After three weeks of protests, both sides now find themselves playing a positional chess game, unsure that they can afford serious violence.
Mass anti-government protests resumed during the weekend, yet again attracting more than a half-million people to central Kiev, Ukraine's capital. During the previous week, a smaller core of protesters from Ukraine's provinces camped out in Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukrainian) and in several buildings commandeered by the opposition, including the mayor's office. After work, locals would come by to show solidarity, donate food and clothes and offer temporary accommodation.
The latest demonstrations gained momentum thanks in part to Twitter posts in which Edward Lucas, deputy editor of the Economist magazine in London, reported that Yanukovych had agreed to join a Russian customs union in return for as much as $15 billion in financial aid from the Kremlin. Such a deal would give Yanukovych the money he needs to mollify voters ahead of presidential elections scheduled for 2015, and would be a serious reversal of Ukraine's previous efforts to build ties with the European Union. As Pravda.com.ua, the protesters' most trusted media source, put it in a headline: "Yanukovych Gave Up Ukraine to Putin."
Tens of thousands of demonstrators, led by politicians from the three major opposition parties, marched to the government quarter and erected flimsy barricades to block officials' access to the cabinet and parliament buildings. Elsewhere, protesters used bullhorns to harangue a counter-rally, to which a few thousand frightened, shabbily dressed Yanukovych supporters had been bused from Eastern Ukraine. Protesters took measures to avoid violence: At every point where demonstrators came into contact with riot police, standing tensely in helmeted lines, opposition enforcers wearing hard hats and medical masks formed a parallel line to keep fights from breaking out.
As darkness fell yesterday, a group of radical youths made their move on the Lenin statue, which had survived attempts to tear it down the previous week. This time the statue went down. Hundreds of people mobbed the boulevard hoping for their turn with a sledgehammer. The mood was festive. People hailed a passing ambulance as if it had come for Lenin and chanted, "Yanukovych, you are next!" Activists climbed the pedestal and hollered "Glory to Ukraine," receiving the required response, "To heroes, glory!"
Earlier today, some people were already selling pieces of Lenin. No one claimed responsibility for tearing down the statue. The ultranationalist Svoboda party denied rumors that it had been among the instigators -- betraying both a fear of reprisals and a need to maintain a united front with the two other opposition parties, Arseniy Yatsenyuk's Batkivshina and Vitali Klitschko's Udar, which have been trying to avoid any kind of violent action at all costs.
"The Ukrainian people took responsibility," Svoboda legislator Igor Miroshnichenko told the Liga Business Inform news service. "Did you see how many Ukrainians there were?"
The ruling Regions Party and the Communists, who last week joined forces to defeat a vote of no-confidence in the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov last week, put out angry statements denouncing the destruction of the statue. This "is not just an act of vandalism," said Communist leader Pyotr Simonenko. "It is evidence that the main goal of the protest's organizers and instigators is not to fight for European values but to fire up hatred, intimidate those who disagree with them and destroy Ukraine's statehood."
Many peaceful protesters were unhappy about the Lenin incident, precisely because they did not want to be accused of vandalism.
"Let the broken pieces serve future generations as a reminder that their ancestors were stupid, cruel and uneducated apes," Anton Merkurov, a social-media consultant and grandson of sculptor Sergei Merkurov, who designed the statue, wrote in his blog. Many commiserated with Merkurov. "I do not condone vandalism," wrote Sonya Koshkina, editor of pro-opposition web site lb.ua. "I believe 'overthrowing' a leader like this is slippery, underhanded and cowardly."
Still, a sizeable number of protesters felt Lenin's tumble was aptly symbolic. In choosing between joining the EU or Russian President Vladimir Putin's customs union, Ukraine is fighting the ghosts of its pre-1991 past. Much of the rhetoric in Kiev is anti-Putin and, strangely after 22 years of Ukrainian independence, anti-Soviet. Many of the demonstrators feel that they are fighting against a slide into the past.
"The scary thing is not that they took [Lenin] down but that he was still there in the first place," journalist Alexander Akymenko wrote on Facebook.
About 1,000 riot police later moved to demolish the barricades in the government quarter. Outnumbered protesters retreated. As of this evening, police had made no move to storm the occupied mayor's office or the tent city on Independence Square. Protesters were handing out gas masks and hard hats, and some were arming themselves with shovel handles. A number of EU ambassadors joined the protesters on the square to prevent violence.
Meanwhile, Yanukovych signaled that he was ready for negotiations with the opposition parties. Unfortunately, it's hard to see what talks can achieve. For Yanukovych, they're a waste of time: the protesters are an elemental, self-organizing force that has little trust in the three parties' leaders. The people might not settle for anything less that the ouster of Yanukovych and Azarov, whatever compromise the party leaders may hammer out. Opposition leaders, for their part, can't trust Yanukovych, who appears still to have the army and the police under his control. That allows him to go back on any promises he may make.
Amid the stalemate, offers of international mediation coming from EU officials and politicians are useless. What is really needed is a dialogue between Yanukovich and the leaderless throngs that hate him and want him to step down immediately.
A violent outcome is hard to rule out. In this chess game, both Yanukovich and opposition radicals are tempted to sweep the pieces from the board.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter.)